battle of the band shells
Pritzker Pavilion or the ravinia Festival? When deciding where to go for your classical fix, it's about more than the music.
Which outdoor music venue offers the best classical music experience? We compare Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion, home of the Grant Park Music Festival, and the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The Grant Park Orchestra fills its ranks with musicians who have the summer off, pulling in players from the likes of the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Led by hard-working conductor Carlos Kalmar, they ain't no amateur-hour band.
Ravinia's new music director James Conlon is a big fan of the composers banned by the Nazis in the 1930s and '40s. In his first year at the helm of the CSO's summer home, he's featuring Victor Ullmann, who died in Auschwitz. Even though it was written in tragic circumstances, "It's music like any other music," Conlon says. "I think it has its proper place right up there beside Mozart and everybody else."
Advantage: Tie. Two great orchestras, two dynamic conductors and top-notch guests. (For complete concert info, go to www.ravinia.org and www.grantparkmusicfestival.com.)
Viewed from the Millennium Park lawn, Frank Gehry's stainless-steel band shell looms large with its trellis crisscrossing overhead. It's starkly modern compared to Ravinia's wooded haven, where the picnickers are legendary, packing the latest must-have fine dining accoutrements from Crate and Barrel. But don't let the high-toned folks discourage you: We wear shorts, and no one seems to care.
Advantage: Ravinia. The Pritzker is an architectural marvel, but for a tranquil musical retreat, it's hard to beat the old standby.
The Pritzker boasts a marvelous sound system, which, thanks to trellis-borne speakers, creates the effect of sitting in a concert hall. Ravinia's sound system doesn't hold up well in comparison; you can barely hear the unmiked sound on the lawn, and the speakers don't help much. While there are trains running underneath Millennium Park, they're inaudible compared to the occasional Metra train that zips by Ravinia.
Advantage: Pritzker. Ravinia's got charm, but the Pritzker has better sub-woofers .
Sitting in the pavilions at either venue, you'll have a good look at whoever's onstage, but move to the lawn and it's a different story. You can't see Ravinia's stage from the lawn; while at the Pritzker, there are clear sightlines from any spot on the grass. The control box at the Pritzker—planted square in the middle of the pavilion seats—takes up a lot of room and isn't fun to look at, but isn't that obtrusive in the end. But if it rains while you're there, you're screwed—there's no roof. Ravinia's got a roof over its seats, but its lawn doesn't drain as quickly as the Pritzker's space-age turf.
Advantage: Pritzker—but check the weather forecast before you go.
If money's an object, the Pritzker's Grant Park Music Festival is the way to go: Lawn seating is free and pavilion seats go for $10. But Ravinia books the bigger-name acts, especially for pop and jazz shows. Those tickets average $35 to $75 for the pavilion, $15 for the lawn. Classical shows go for $15 to $40, with $10 lawn seats.
Advantage: Tie. Ravinia's got affordable big acts; the Pritzker Pavilion is just plain affordable.
Getting to Ravinia is easy on Metra's Union Pacific North line, which stops just outside the Festival's gates. But waiting in line on the platform after the concert can suck. Because it's located adjacent to the Loop, Millennium Park is accessible by all CTA trains and a slew of buses. Both venues have parking, too: At Ravinia, you may have to hop a shuttle from the lot to the gate; downtown, there are always spots in the Millennium Park and Monroe Street garages, located directly below the park.
Advantage: Tie. The train ride to Ravinia is half the fun, but the Pritzker is as accessible as it gets.
If you're going to Ravinia, stop by Foodstuffs in Glencoe (338 Park Avenue, 847-835-5105) for gourmet carryout. For food inside the park, Ravinia has Mirabelle (847-432-7550) for fine dining and Le Cafe for inexpensive sandwiches and drinks. Millennium Park offers take-out meals from Park Grill (11 N Michigan Ave 312-521-7215) and sandwiches at the pavilion's entrance; the Loop has a ton of carryout options, including staff favorite Berghoff Cafe (17 W Adams St, 312-427-3170).
Both festivals allow alcohol on the lawn, but no smoking. So to indulge both vices at once, stand at the entrance, cigarette in one hand, wine glass in the other, and direct your smoke smoke rings outside the park. The security guards won't know what to do.
Advantage: Tie. Casual or fancy fits both.
THE WINNER: The Pritzker, by a hair. Ravinia is a pleasant place to decompress away from the city, but the Pritzker's state-of-the-art sound system, architectural pedigree and sight lines make for a killer classical combo.